1. KINGS AND QUEEN (ROIS ET REINE) (Arnaud Desplechin, 2004)
I’m at a loss to describe my pick for the best film of 2005. My choice is Arnaud Desplechin’s KINGS AND QUEEN, a messy, bewildering, and brilliant film whose merits defy simple explanations. Emanuelle Devos plays Nora, a single mother seeking a father for her son. Her first husband was killed in an accident. Her second lover tended to be a head case, and her son doesn’t get along with her current businessman fiancé. On top of this, her father is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Nora’s tragic story is juxtaposed with the comedy of Ismaël (Mathieu Amalric), a violist who, at the request of his sister, is admitted against his will into a mental hospital. Like Ismaël, KINGS AND QUEEN is manic-depressive, alternating between the silly relentlessness of his scenes and the deep guilt and sorrow of Nora’s. That Desplechin and the spectacular Devos and Amalric pull off these drastic tonal shifts is something of a miracle. This delirious magnum opus is overstuffed with ideas, contradictions, and affection that get the brain's synapses firing like crazy. I don't know that I completely understand KINGS AND QUEEN, so maybe it's the pure aesthetic pleasure of sensory overload that won me over. More than anything else I saw in 2005, this was the movie that had my head spinning for days.
2. MURDERBALL (Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro, 2005)
This brash, highly entertaining documentary breaks all kinds of preconceptions and misconceptions about quadriplegics. Shot almost exclusively from the vantage point of a wheelchair, MURDERBALL introduces the rough and tumble world of quad rugby and the hardnosed men who play the game. It's uplifting and inspirational without being cloying or sentimental.
3. NOBODY KNOWS (DARE MO SHIRANAI) (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2004)
One of my favorite filmmakers tells a harrowing tale of abandoned children with such delicacy and grace that the dark places it goes don't feel oppressive. NOBODY KNOWS seems to owe much to Truffaut, specifically THE 400 BLOWS and SMALL CHANGE. It's sort of like if the first Antoine Doinel film focused exclusively on the time he ran away from home and found a hidden place in Paris to live and play. The children in NOBODY KNOWS are mostly confined to their parent-free home but don't see the gravity of the situation, turning it into their own little paradise. (A tracking shot of the eldest running through the city and the film-ending freeze frame are the strongest tip-offs to any intended 400 BLOWS homage.) Hirokazu dwells on the resiliency of the children, a theme that also resonated in SMALL CHANGE.
4. MUNICH (Steven Spielberg, 2005)
Obviously MUNICH is about the Israel-Palestine conflict, but when paired with WAR OF THE WORLDS, it's apparent that both films are crypto-9/11 movies also. They are views of 9/11 and the aftermath while ostensibly not being about 9/11 in the least. (If one posits that WAR OF THE WORLDS is the view of the attacked--whether America on 9/11 or Iraq during the resulting war--then MUNICH is the view of the attacker.) 9/11 considerations aside, MUNICH is a strong piece of work that wrestles with the moral and psychological cost of revenge. Spielberg is a master storyteller who smoothly guides this long, densely plotted film as a series of thriller setpieces. He's also a great formalist. Part of the thrill is grooving on the 70s filmmaking aesthetic--one scene plays like a riff on THE CONVERSATION while another is a tip of the hat to Hitchcock--and the travelogue aspect. Janusz Kaminski's cinematography imbues the image with a fragile, tissue paper-like quality.
5. WAR OF THE WORLDS (Steven Spielberg, 2005)
Steven Spielberg's visually magnificent and utterly terrifying interpretation of WAR OF THE WORLDS proves that there's no one better at making event movies. Although it isn't particularly deep in regard to character or theme, WAR OF THE WORLDS rattled and awed me. The unrelenting intensity becomes uncomfortable while the visualization of terror from above and below is technically impressive and believable.
6. GRIZZLY MAN (Werner Herzog, 2005)
Werner Herzog is drawn to obsessive characters, and he couldn't have found a better subject than Timothy Treadwell for his documentary GRIZZLY MAN. Treadwell spent a lot of time living among and interacting with grizzly bears in Alaska, a pursuit that ended when one of the animals ate him and a companion. Treadwell left hours of terrific footage he shot of himself in the wilderness with the bears and other animals. Herzog organizes it into a compelling portrait of self-delusion and identity creation. He shows how Treadwell acted for the camera, which allowed him to become removed from a disappointing personal history. Herzog stages interviews to achieve the same effect that Treadwell used to invent his new self. Truth is often stranger than fiction. Such was Treadwell's story.
7. PRIDE & PREJUDICE (Joe Wright, 2005)
Joe Wright's splendid adaptation of Jane Austen's PRIDE & PREJUDICE is a lovely production, with spectacular estates and soft, golden hues, but it’s far from a stuffy affair. Wright favors a classicist’s approach yet also deploys some exhilarating modern cinematic touches. The delightful dialogue is quick-witted and, at critical moments, quite moving. As the heroine Elizabeth Bennet, Keira Knightley has never been better than she is in this glorious film.
8. BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (Ang Lee, 2005)
Whether one views BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN as a tragic gay romance or a universal love story--it's both--either way director Ang Lee has crafted a great melodrama about emotional repression. The theme resonates throughout Lee's body of work. In Ennis Del Mar, Lee's film has a main character incapable of giving or revealing himself fully to another person. (The gender of the other person is almost incidental.) The emotional upheaval of Ennis' struggle trumps the specifics of the on-screen character's sexuality. Ennis' inability to surrender to Jack Twist is the main relationship, but his failure to be honest with wife Alma is significant too. The one, though, that strikes me as the key is how he resists committing to attend his daughter's wedding. He fights so hard not to connect with someone else--out of habit and out of fear--that it is an enormous feat to agree to be there, although not indicative that he will change (or even show up when it comes). Heath Ledger, giving an intense, highly internalized performance, and Michelle Williams do great work as Ennis and Alma. BROKEBACK'S formal elements (and Lee's direction, natch) are top rate. The wide open spaces and big sky speak to the room Ennis needs.
9. MATCH POINT (Woody Allen, 2005)
Part thriller and part morality play, MATCH POINT is Woody Allen’s best film in a decade (1996’s EVERYONE SAYS I LOVE YOU). It’s also a marvelous companion with CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS, one of Allen’s greatest works. In CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS, God’s inaction and failure to punish is viewed as passive complicity with evil. MATCH POINT’S black-hearted protagonist doesn’t consider God a factor. In his nihilistic worldview, the universe is cruel and uncaring. Such a philosophy liberates Chris to satisfy his desires without a moral framework. His actions are icily calculated and free of empathy for those he uses, yet it doesn’t seem as though his amorality would inevitably lead to evil. The culmination of Chris’ narcissism comes in a chilling sequence that rhymes with a similar scene in CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS. Allen has questioned religion throughout his career, but in MATCH POINT he shows how a lack of faith can be disturbing.
10. KISS KISS BANG BANG (Shane Black, 2005)
A first rate entertainment that snaps with humor and style, KISS KISS BANG BANG was one of 2005's funniest movies and a potent shot in the arm for the modern crime picture. The film noir and dime store paperback elements satisfy, but the murder mystery is secondary to the characters and their quips. The characters spar, equipped with Shane Black’s sharply written wordplay that consistently lands big laughs. Robert Downey Jr., Val Kilmer, and Michelle Monaghan give nimble performances that juggle the danger of their situations as well as the comedy and romance.